Camp Ruston was one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the United States during World War II.
At the outbreak of World War II, the residents of a small African American village in the red clay hills of north Louisiana could never have imagined that within months, the outskirts of their community would harbor thousands of men who spoke a dozen languages. In addition to these foreign tongues, they could never have conceived of the notes of an orchestra or the cheers of soccer players that would drift on humid breezes through the posts of a high fence topped with barbed wire. Exigencies of the war produced these peculiarities in the form of Camp Ruston, one of the largest prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in the United States. Located not in its namesake of Ruston but seven miles northwest on the edge of Grambling, the internment camp housed mostly German prisoners, with smaller numbers of French, Austrian, Italian, Czech, Polish, Yugoslav, Romanian, and Russian soldiers.
Camp Ruston was one of four large internment facilities established in Louisiana to house the hundreds of thousands of captured Axis soldiers who were transported to the United States. After a survey of several candidate sites in north Louisiana, the War Department selected the Grambling location, in part, because of its proximity to the Vicksburg, Shreveport, and Pacific Railroad—a necessity for the efficient movement of men and materials. Officials bought 750 acres via eminent domain from the landowners for $24,200 and promised the return of the property after the war. Local contractor T.L. James & Company built the camp on a standardized plan that included rows of tar-paper-covered housing units for the prisoners, a housing and administrative complex for the American guards, three water wells, a water tower, kitchens, mess halls, latrines, a chapel, a laundry, and recreation areas. The POW officers’ compound was separated from that of the enlisted men. A tall wire fence punctuated by guard towers surrounded the entire camp. Construction cost $2.5 million, and the camp was activated on Christmas Day 1942.
Boot Camp and Wartime Prison
Until the first prisoners arrived in August 1943, the camp served as headquarters of the Fifth Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Training Center. More than 3,000 WAACs received basic training at the facility. The first trainload of prisoners to arrive at Camp Ruston consisted of 300 men from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s renowned Afrika Korps. The most important prisoners included the crew of the German submarine U-505. After the vessel and its code book were captured near Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean on June 4, 1944, the crew was placed in isolation at Camp Ruston. The men were even denied visits from the International Red Cross in order to keep the Germans from learning that their secret codes had been compromised. German prisoners with strong Nazi sentiments and those considered non-Nazis were usually sent to different camps to help maintain order. Camp Ruston was considered a non-Nazi facility. In October 1943 the camp reached its peak occupation with 4,315 prisoners.
The American captors observed the 1929 Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war, and legitimate prisoner complaints were rare. Meals were adequate and medical care was provided. When not involved in routine camp work—such as cleaning and cooking—or on remote details, physical recreation was encouraged. Baseball, basketball, tennis, boxing, and especially the familiar soccer were favorite sports. A theater group that produced musical comedies for the men was formed. Music was popular in the camp and resulted in a POW orchestra, band, and choirs. Art and hobbies such as woodworking were practiced. The prisoners were proactive in continuing their own education. Competent instructors from within their own ranks taught secondary school and college-level classes in languages (including English, French, and Arabic), math, business, chemistry, physics, history, geography, and art. They had access to books from nearby Louisiana Polytechnic Institute (now Louisiana Tech University). The American government, in subtle efforts to instill the values of democracy in the prisoners, provided relevant movies, books, and magazines to further this cause.
Prisoners for Hire
Louisiana legislators had lobbied for the establishment of POW camps in the state because of labor-shortage concerns of their constituents—mainly farmers. The shortage, a result of a high percentage of men serving in the armed forces or working out of state in well-paying defense-industry jobs, threatened sugarcane production in the southern parishes and cotton farming in the northern parishes. Internment camps relieved the shortage by requiring that enlisted prisoners perform such labor, usually on a seasonal basis. To facilitate the work, branch camps were created under each of the main camps in the state. Camp Ruston provided men and administrative support to branches in Bastrop, Lake Providence, Tallulah, and West Monroe. They worked mainly in the farming and timber industries but also on public works, such as road building. For their labor, the prisoners were paid in scrip that could be spent in the camp’s canteen to purchase coffee, cigarettes, beer, toiletries, and reading material.
The last prisoners left Camp Ruston for repatriation in early February 1946. The camp was shuttered the following June. Decades after their incarceration at Camp Ruston, former POWs would recall their lives in the north Louisiana hill country and commonly remark that their experiences led them to support a postwar democratic government in their own countries.
Camp Ruston had no happy ending for the former owners of the camp’s property. Bowing to political pressure, the federal government reneged on its promise to return the land and instead sold it to the state of Louisiana. A tuberculosis sanatorium occupied the site from 1947 to 1958, and it later became the Ruston Developmental Center. Two of the camp’s original buildings remain and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
In 2007 the documentary German POWs in Louisiana: The Camp Ruston Story was produced for Louisiana Public Broadcasting. The program featured archival film and photographs as well as reenactments of camp events. The Special Collections Department at Louisiana Tech University contains documents and artifacts related to Camp Ruston, and The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where the captured U-505 is displayed, also has records related to the crew and their internment in north Louisiana.